Sound and Vision

Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre? A Selection of 450 Gouaches BY Judith C. E. Belinfante, Evelyn Benesch. Taschen America. Hardcover, 600 pages. $35.
Life? Or theatre? BY Charlotte Salomon. The Overlook Press. Hardcover, 840 pages. $150.

Origin stories are woven with many threads: Some we spin ourselves, while others we inherit. The great German artist Charlotte Salomon (1917–1943) accounted for herself—for who she was, and why she was, and where she came from—not by wondering what of herself was fact and what was fiction. Rather, the real and present question was Leben? oder Theater? (Life? or Theatre?). In other words, how to distinguish genuine presence and raw experience from the spectacle and folly of human making.

Life? or Theatre? is the title of Salomon’s singular and revelatory masterpiece, which she described very simply as ein Singespiel, “a play with music.” But it isn’t simple: It is a true Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art, at once memoir and novel, script and libretto, painting and music, art object and spirit force. (Salomon herself writes, with little exaggeration, of the “soul-penetrating nature of the work.”) Comprising 769 gouaches on paper alongside 320 transparent overlays on which she has written (or, really, rewritten) her life story, Life? or Theatre? was largely created in a frenzied solitude the artist arranged for herself between the winter of 1941 and the summer of 1942. Apart from a few paintings, the project would be her life’s work: On October 10, 1943, she was exterminated at Auschwitz.

In 2017, in honor of the centenary of Salomon’s birth, two publishers released English translations of Salomon’s project in book form. Taschen put together a selection of 450 gouaches and two essays on the artist; the Overlook Press published a complete edition, which also includes essays, remembrances, and a letter Salomon wrote, here presented as an addendum to her work. (In March, Yale University Press published Charlotte Salomon and the Theatre of Memory, a book-length critical analysis of the project by the art historian Griselda Pollock.) Though heavy as a small headstone, the Overlook edition is truer to the spirit of Life? or Theatre? Reading it feels somewhat like a grand performance—leafing through its 840 pages like pulling back curtain after curtain to reveal the story unfolding.

The project follows her life to the letter. That said, facts rarely thrive inside family narratives, which tend instead to defer to memory and feeling. Those closest to her appear in the story under pseudonyms. The author divides her production into three sections—“Prologue,” “Main Section,” and “Epilogue”—and punctuates most scenes by invoking a piece of music that she wishes the reader to hear playing under the action, such as “Love Is a Rebellious Bird” from Bizet’s Carmen and the first movement of Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik.

Her epic begins at her beginning: with the suicide of her namesake aunt, Charlotte. From the go, we understand that grief has named her, has all but lodged itself in her DNA. This doesn’t give a girl easy entry into life: “Little Charlotte did not seem at all pleased at being born—she cried pitifully day and night.” Her mother often speaks of heaven and angels, but her mood gradually blackens, and soon she talks only of death. Like her sister before her, Charlotte’s mother takes her own life, throwing herself out a window. The young girl is told that her mother died of influenza, and awaits the letter from heaven that she once promised she would send. The rest of the prologue focuses on Charlotte’s stepmother, a singer here called Paulinka Bimbam, who brings new life into their home.

What Salomon calls the “Main Section” of Life? or Theatre? largely tells the story of Amadeus Daberlohn, “prophet of song,” a character based on Alfred Wolfsohn (1896–1962), who was her stepmother’s music tutor. Wolfsohn had served on the front lines during World War I, transporting the wounded from the battlefield to the field hospital. After he returned home, he cured himself of his “shell shock” by designing exercises to strengthen the voice. He was, as Salomon reveals, a cad as well, and of course, young Charlotte, twenty-one years his junior, falls in love with him. They begin an affair, meeting in cafés and on park benches and at the beach, away from prying eyes. Although they were ill-fated as lovers, his presence serves as a wellspring from which she strengthens a sense of herself. “Do you know, my child,” he says, in a painting in which they hold hands across a dining table, “that some of your drawings are quite excellent?” In the gouache that follows, he and Charlotte are staring into each other’s eyes. Hovering between them are the words “One day people will be looking at us two.” Amadeus is more than a mere muse for her work: Without him, she believes—and so does the reader—she couldn’t have become an artist at all.

In her project’s “Epilogue,” World War II is declared. Charlotte has joined her grandparents in Nice. They are refugees, and their money is running out. Anxiety, anger, uncertainty: These are the unbearable conditions of living as a Jew in Hitler’s Europe. The secret of her mother’s death is at last revealed to Charlotte. Her grandmother, like her eldest daughter, throws herself out a window. Her grandfather becomes oppressive, insufferable. His health is failing. Charlotte cannot stay with him, but where to go? What can she do?

Gouache paintings on paper from Charlotte Salomon’s series “Leben? oder Theater?” (Life? or Theatre?), 1940–42. © Charlotte Salomon Foundation, courtesy The Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam.

Throughout Life? or Theatre?, Salomon’s style of painting reflects the tone and temperature of each beat of the story. She can’t be neatly pinned down to a school or modern movement, though in her work one sees kinship with her contemporaries, none of whom she knew. In the long, plaintive faces of her characters, one may find echoes of Modigliani; in her vibrant, energetic landscapes, there is a gusto similar to that of Raoul Dufy; and the crueler moments of the story bear something of the furious melancholy of George Grosz. Salomon’s hand is expressive and romantic—moved, it seems, less by hard-and-fast aesthetic ideals and more by shifting moods and solitude, and the feeling of time and space slowly closing around her.

Growing up in Berlin, Salomon found her life bound by the increasing hostility and violence toward Jews. With Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s, aggressions escalated, and living conditions became intolerable. There are paintings that look as though they were made in haste—not sloppy or thoughtless, but produced by a mind that’s hyperstimulated. There is an undeniable rush to her brush across the paper, as though it has to keep up with her story, and then keep on. Her lines loosen around certain points in her narrative, and her figures dissolve into something better described as figments—here energy, dynamic, and color surpass clarity of subject or action.

A gouache of her mother lying dead on the ground in the garden is one of the project’s strangest, most aching images. Salomon paints her wearing a lilac gown, her right arm lying limply over her head, which rests in a pool of blood. Her leg kinks skyward, reducing her form to an impossible knot. The artist renders the garden behind her mother with short, itchy strokes, like an impatient Impressionist’s vision of suicide. On the following page, Salomon paints a portrait of her grandmother, her body receding, becoming a negative space against the dark blue-hued room in which she sits. The text reads: “Her grief spreads throughout her body. It transcends her own suffering. It is the suffering of the world.”

At other moments in Life? or Theatre?, the gouaches are denser, more strategically composed, finely wrought. The devil is in the details. An illustration of her parents’ first apartment is rendered from a bird’s-eye view, as though one is looking at a dollhouse that’s been cut open and pulled apart, its rooms lined up for inspection. There is a sense of sweet domesticity in the wallpaper, the curtains, the empty crib that awaits its newborn, and yet Salomon’s image is dark and sinister, too. These rooms have no open doors to pass through. They are disconnected from one another, sharing only walls—home takes on the terrible qualities of a quarantine ward or a prison.

Perhaps the best-known image from the book is the final one: Charlotte, having been struck by the revelation of what she must now do, sitting seaside in her bathing suit, holding a paintbrush, ready to begin the artwork the reader now holds in her hands. “And with dream-awakened eyes,” she writes on the previous page, “she saw all the beauty around her, saw the sea, felt the sun, and knew: She had to vanish for a while from the human plane and make every sacrifice in order to create her world anew from the depths.” On her back are painted the words LEBEN? ODER THEATER?, ending this story with her beginning as an artist.

In February of 1943, six months after finishing her masterpiece, Salomon wrote a kind of postscript in the form of a lengthy letter to Amadeus, the character based on Wolfsohn. The former lovers were long out of touch at that point, and Salomon’s choice to address Wolfsohn’s dramatis persona rather than him—or any other “real person,” for that matter—in essence aimed her words at her life’s work, piercing it to let in new light. (She never mailed the letter, and there is no evidence that she ever intended to.) Salomon thanks Amadeus for his contribution to her life and art. She explains how Life? or Theatre? came to be, and how it might be read: as a portrait of an author-artist as someone who inhabits lives other than her own. “The war raged on,” she writes, “and I sat there by the sea and looked deep into the heart of humanity I became my mother my grandmother in fact I was all the characters who appear in my play. I learned to travel all their paths and became all of them.”

In the letter, Salomon also accounts for another role she played in real life: that of murderess. Twisting the plot of her own story, she confesses to killing her ailing eighty-year-old grandfather by serving him an omelet laced with Veronal. (Along with the pages of Life? or Theatre?, this letter was given to her father and stepmother after the war. To guard her memory, they kept it a secret. It was only made public in 2012.) The revelation of course recasts Salomon’s character, from a brilliant, sensitive soul victimized by her times to a vengeful fury who coldly took the life of one of her last surviving family members. Her crime may come as a surprise—how could she kill, she who’d felt so abandoned when her mother and grandmother took their own lives?—but it is not a complete shock, perhaps in part because Salomon is a great artist, and a great artist never dutifully plays the roles that are written for her.

Fueled by despair and rage, she penned the letter—in the first person and in the present tense—at the same time her grandfather was slipping away: “As I write, it is working. Maybe by now he is already dead.” She explains why neither she nor life require his performance any longer. In short: He’d been putting on a very bad show; his “theater of civilized, cultured men” was little more than a savage lie. She describes him as “the thorn of the diseased state inside me,” and lets loose about how monstrously both he and her grandmother had treated their hostess and wealthy American protector, Ottilie Moore. According to Salomon, they complained bitterly about Moore and received her generosity with shameful hauteur. Her grandparents’ transgressions were many, and feeding their villainy was the malignant root that lurks beneath every variety of human rot: delusion, or in Salomon’s words, “seeing things only from their own point of view.” With Hitler casting an inescapable shadow across her mind, Salomon’s story speaks to larger tragedies. The letter doubles as a morality tale—one that humanity continues to write for itself—in which empathy vanishes, self-loathing finds the wrong balm in vanity, and trauma warps into entitlement.

What may shock readers more than Salomon’s crime is the unexpected discovery that she ends her letter with an expression of deep gratitude, and with the hope that something good will come of the war. “Perhaps dearest,” she writes to Amadeus in the final sentences, “it is actually true that with this war even the theater that’s played out by humanity comes to an end so that all of humankind

tested by hard pain and
experience
moves toward
a truer
life—

affirming
life.
I thank you.
I almost want
To say:
Amen.

“I almost want to say,” she qualifies it, perhaps because a simple “Amen” would transform the words that came before it into prayer—and this was not a prayer. To say “Amen” would also mean she’d reached the end of her story, and she was not yet at the end of the story. In the months that followed Life? or Theatre? and her letter of confession, she fell in love, married, and became pregnant. Her fate would be written by others—almost. In Life? or Theatre?, Salomon will forever have the final word.


Jennifer Krasinski is a senior editor of Artforum.